Skip to main content

Is this the end of the world? Why would the gods let this happen?

Pompeii
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Gladiator meets Titanic, and every bit as mechanically fashioned and empty-headed as the pitch sounds. You’d expect nothing better from Paul W Anderson, a technically efficient but soulless director blessed with a determinedly mediocre career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he genuinely believed he was making something of emotional heft and tragic beauty, his chance to win credibility with a sword-and-sandals epic doubling as an almighty tearjerker. In volcano-busting 3D.


I didn’t watch the 3D version, I hasten to add, but the third act disaster movie trappings are clearly intended for those donning such spectacles; flaming molten chunks cascading hither and thither. This section manages to ape both Titanic (rescuing the girl while dodging the villain) and 2012 (outrunning earthquakes, but without the sense of humour). Anderson can put together an action sequence, and he also has a fair eye for integrated effects work, but as his filmography proves he’s never been able to make us care about his characters. This is his first love story, so the failing on this occasion is particularly glaring.


The screenplay is credited to Janet Scott and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Johnson (one of five names on the first Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes) and I can only assume there were no conversations along the lines of “Perhaps we could come up with something better here?” Anderson begins with a quote from Pliny the Younger describing the disaster, which might wrongly suggest attempts at authenticity (Anderson alleges the all the volcano business is accurate geologically accurate… great balls of fire aside – which constitute an unerring threat).


That’s as good as it gets, since everyone here is wretchedly modern in sensibility; not least heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a headstrong young woman seemingly oblivious to Roman customs and etiquette. But then, she has utterly doting parents (Carrie Anne Moss, perpetually under-used, and Jared Harris; both add a bit of class to the proceedings) who wouldn’t even think of such a backward custom as arranging a marriage for her. She’s like Kate Winslet in Titanic, you see, rebelling against the codes of her time as if granted foreknowledge from the gaudy heights of 21st century California. Accordingly, the makers appear to have done their research by watching Roman epics from the ‘50s.


Her parents live in Pompeii, and daddy is attempting to get funding for a new amphitheatre from Keifer Sutherland’s Senator Corvus. Corvus is a thoroughly rotten rotter; he not only has designs on Cassia, but he killed the parents of poor pouting Milo (Kit Harington) when he was but a wee lamb. Milo subsequently entered slavery only to emerge a positively ripped 20-something kick-ass gladiator (so… slavery’s good for your health regimen?) Most curiously, he’s also a peerless horse whisperer. One wonders where he got the time for such sensitivity amid the arterial spray of bested opponents. Ah, I know; he comes from a tribe of Celtic horsemen, which means it must be in his genes! It also shows he’s a deep and whistful soul, so when he first encounters Cassia she has no choice but to fall for his animal-loving humanity (“Stop! Let him help the horse”; which he does by snapping it’s neck, I have no idea quite how strong you’d need to be to do that – Hulk or possibly Wolverine could manage it – but it seems Milo’s more than got the goods).


This is just the first of numerous unintentionally funny moments throughout, including Milo’s Inigo Montaya revenge fetish and his displays of quite astonishing stoicism (“15 lashes and he didn’t make a sound”). At least Keifer, relishing the chance to play a bad guy, and taking a stab at something approximating his father’s flair for ghoulish refinement, seems to get the joke (one that clearly didn’t dawn on Anderson). During the centre piece gladiatorial, a re-enactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts is staged by Harris’ Severus. Unfortunately, no one counted on the estimable fighting skills of Milo and pal Atticus (Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the “Romans” are thoroughly trounced. Turning to his host, Corvus comments “Severus, this is not exactly how I remembered it”. He also makes a point of Alan Rickman-ing excessive orders, with an ever-more frustrated demand to “Kill them! Kill them all!


Anderson is best known for making one half decent movie with Event Horizon, ruining what was commonly held to be a great script for Soldier, killing any last shreds of respect the Alien series had with Alien vs. Predator and inflicting three of the five Resident Evils on the world (he wrote all five; the script for Pompeii is so perfunctory I thought he must have pitched in, but it seems not).  Where he does exhibit a degree of slick competence is in staging action but, like (for example) Len Wiseman, this has little impact because his pictures are so bland and faceless. The introduction to adult Milo sees him kill a series of arena antagonists in slow motion without pausing to adjust his leather skirt; Harington, with ne’er a hair out of place and an expression that’s more sullen than moody, looks like he’s filming a shampoo advert (just look at the post below for the effects of a bracing lava shower on one's perm). It’s no more than you’d expect from the director; he sees Harington playing an affecting and sympathetic character in Game of Thrones, thinks I’ll have some of that guy, but forgets to include any of the ingredients that would allow him to be relatable.


Still, the brutal arena games include some creative moments, the re-enactment chief among them. I’m unconvinced that Milo could do all the amazing things he does without tying his chain in knots, but I’ll let that pass. Less successful is Anderson’s penchant for having his young hero leap upon his adversaries from a great height at any opportunity. When it comes to the all-important eruption, there’s a lot of dashing about and increasingly absurd delays of the inevitable. There are duels aplenty amid the ash and devastation, including a fight to the death in the rubble of the arena (Sasha Roiz enjoys being a bastardly Roman almost as much as Sutherland) and a chariot race through the exploding streets. Atticus even saves a child at one point, who will doubtless die minutes later anyway. But it’s the thought that counts.


Harington and Browning may die in an everlasting clinch, but it only makes dramatic sense to off your protagonists if you care about them. For all the significant failings of his last two movies, James Cameron was able to make audiences care about his love stories. It’s not even necessarily the case that Anderson sets up something cruder than Jimbo. Rather, the latter knows how to fashion the rudiments of character (and they only ever are rudiments). Here, the love story amounts to naught and it’s the readiest explanation of why Pompeii was an expensive bomb ($108m gross worldwide on a $100m budget). It’s so non-descript, so unassumingly derivative, there’s barely a conversation to be had here. Never mind, Resident Evil 6 is just around the corner.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.